Monday, January 18, 2016

takeaways



During the month of October, I did Whole30. For those of you unfamiliar, you can get the skinny on their website. I did pretty well (I’d say a solid B+) in adhering to the guidelines, though there were some things I definitely messed up on. Because basically insteading of reading the actual rules, I just asked my sister, who told me even though it was probably not okay to eat three Lara bars in one day on Whole30 that I could. So I did. I also used copious amounts of olive oil, which you’re supposed to limit and I also took a day off for a wedding and then one afternoon off for a beer festival (it was a work event, guys). So basically I did like Whole27-plus-potatoes-and-shit-I realized-halfway-through-that-the-almond-milk-I-drink-actually-has-carrageenans-in-it. But STILL. I didn’t drink alcohol for almost a whole month and I didn’t eat black beans or lentils. And I had a family health crisis, a few isolated work crises AND I got my period back and I STILL didn’t cheat. SO I would like some kind of a plaque and/or trophy for my wall. For being so brave and strong.

When you are done with Whole30 you’re supposed to undergo a process of “reintroduction” so that you can really determine foods that make you tired, inflamed, bloated, mess-with-your-digestion, etc. The idea is every three days you add back in one of the forbidden foods and you illustrate to yourself what’s not working for you. For me, my first day done with Whole30 was Halloween and I went to a party. So my reintroduction process consisted of me drinking beer and a bunch of wine, eating pizza and pounding, like, four Reese’s cups. My reintroduction also consisted of me not sleeping that night as my body tried to fight off the case of Instant Diabetes I had attempted to give it.

I had some good takeaways from my Whole30 experience and some things that I know just aren’t sustainable for me (like no pizza- I don’t even care if it makes me feel sluggish, they will pry the slice from my cold dead hands)...but on the other hand I realized I enjoy black coffee now and I enjoy and even look forward to meals that are heavier on veggies than anything else. This yummy breakfast dish was my go-to Sunday morning meal during my Whole27ish. It’s so good Paul didn’t even notice we had stopped eating baked beans.

SMOKY SWEET POTATO HASH with EGGS

1-2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into a very small dice*
1 shallot; or ½ an onion, finely minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon cumin
¾ teaspoon smoked paprika
4 eggs
salt and pepper

Optional: sliced avocado for serving

*In order for this hash to be successful (i.e. potatoes that are cooked through but not falling apart) you must take the time to cut them into an evenly sized dice. I’d wager to say my dice on these is usually about ½ “ square, but god knows I’ve never taken a measuring tape to ‘em. In a very large skillet or cast iron pan, heat about 3 tablespoons of oil over medium heat. Add onion or shallot, season with salt and pepper, and saute 1-2 minutes, or until fragrant. Add sweet potato and toss around to evenly coat with oil, adding a drizzle more if necessary. Season everything with a pinch of salt and pepper and cover, stirring often, letting the potatoes and onion steam a bit for about 3-4 minutes. Add garlic and spices and stir together well. Return lid and let the potatoes continue to “steam” for lack of a better word, stirring often so they don’t stick, for another 5 minutes more. Test a potato cube for doneness...you want them to be just about done, but not mushy. They will continue to cook for another solid few minutes, so even if there’s a tiny bit of bite to them still, it’s okay.

Reduce heat to low for a moment and use a spatula or wooden spoon to make four little indents in the potato mixture. Drizzle a touch of olive oil into each one and then carefully crack an egg into each. Raise the heat just a bit, to just shy of medium and let everything cook until the eggs are done to your liking. I find using the cover for a few minutes, but then allowing them to cook uncovered yields fully cooked whites and still-runny yolks. To tell that the whites are done, I usually just carefully pick up one side of my pan and tilt it up, you want a little movement left in the yolks but no runniness whatsoever from the whites. Serve with sliced avocado and plenty of hot sauce.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

so this is christmas

This blog post has been on my to-do list for no less than six weeks, maybe longer. It’s not that I haven’t been busy (it is, after all, December 22nd); it’s that I haven’t much know where to start or what to say. I was talking the other night with a best friend of mine and she said she has found it hard to blog ever since she had her son (who is now almost two). She was just saying that it’s not a time thing; it’s just more of a question of not being sure what her voice is right now. She doesn’t want her design blog to turn into a mom blog, but at the same time, it’s kind of hard to deny the dominant role in your life.

This is the cutest photograph known by mankind in this century or any other:

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As for me, I totally feel what she's saying, but the absence here has not been a question of lost voice (mine is still snark and self deprecation, with a generous serving of food porn), or even a question of not having time (though things have been busy) it’s just been a weird fall, a strange end to an amazing year, and I’m not sure how to approach it without being a total downer. On October 21st my uncle became severely sick with an illness that is still very much a mystery. A standard seeming cold, turned stomach virus, suddenly got very serious, very fast and within a span of five hours or so he was paralyzed and intubated and looked surely as though he would not make it through the night, let alone the week. He spent over four weeks in the neurological ICU at Brigham & Women’s and has now been transferred to acute long term care at a different hospital. My uncle Loran is someone who is low key, and would rather help you paint your whole house than take a meal which you have offered- so I’m sure all this attention is not his bag. His illness has been a rollercoaster of emotion and has gone from severe, to worse, to better, back to complicated and has now, two months later, shifted into a place where I think there is hope. He is moving some parts of his body, sitting up, and talking. These are big giant leaps forward and we can all only hope that things keep moving forward in a positive way from here on out.

This is my uncle and Russel on 4th of July. I am so happy I got this photo:

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This illness has been taxing emotionally for everybody. We are a close knit clan and to see a vibrant, active, generous member of your family confined to a bed, unsure of what the future holds, is like the equivalent of grieving for a person in slow motion. It has been very draining on my mom and aunts, because all they want is for their only brother to heal and be better, and the slow pace of recovery has been a lesson in patience.

Whenever life gets you down, I suggest you consider how stoked a baby gets about Christmas lights. Know that we all have this much joy inside of us, too:

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So it has been hard, as we move through the holidays, not to be informed by this sadness; but I do find it’s best to focus on the hope. And there is hope and progress and he is still here. Which is the closest thing to a miracle I have ever seen. This year as a whole, has been filled with miraculous events and I must say, to see my uncle come back from the brink of death, has been a part of the beauty of it all (although we TOTALLY could have done without the terrifying mystery illness). This was the year I became a mother and watched a tiny, squishy alien being develop into a jubilant, charismatic little ball of personality who GETS JOKES and can “sing” and “dance”. It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen. Also, I have been cooking constantly (hello, I have to feed my family and I love to eat my feelings, so OBVIOUSLY) so I have plenty to share here. For now though, I wish you and your family a holiday filled with warmth and cheer. Lots and love and I’ll see you next year.

xoxo, Jess

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Thursday, October 15, 2015

messy and full

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At some point it became October and I’m not really sure how that happened. Oh wait, no I know how. We spent September in a dreamy, chaotic, wonderful haze of family time. Our house was packed to the hilt with people. My sister, her husband and their two boys came to stay for a visit that spanned almost three weeks. The house was loud, the surfaces were sticky, the laundry was endless and the time together was So. Much. Fun.

I think it’s a natural reaction from a lot of people that having house guests is a hassle but I don’t know...there’s something fundamentally right about it to me. Why do we have this house if not to open it up to the people we love? When I would mention that a family of four was bunking with us for a few weeks people would be like “yikes!” or “are you guys over it?” and I’ve got to say, maybe I just like them so much I don’t notice (totally possible) but these visits are a joy. And I’m not even speaking just for me but for Paul too! He may have missed them more than I did when they left. When half of your family lives several thousand miles away and the only time you get to see them in the flesh is but once or twice a year you tend to be pretty stoked about it. And it’s just really fun to have a bunch more people to goof around with. Every meal feels like an event, even breakfast. One evening while I was cooking my sister and I had a long conversation about true hospitality and we agreed: we’d rather have a messy house full of people than a clean one that’s empty.

I guess this partially explains why my idea of a good time is having, like, 30 people over for dinner; which is exactly what we did to celebrate my sister’s 40th birthday while they were in town. I could not wait to make a dank dinner for a crowd to show her just how much I love her and if I do say so myself, I think I did just that. The key to staying sane while hosting, while also having houseguests? Well, first, make the boys clean the house. The adult boys, not the little ones. And then when it comes to the menu: plan ahead, prep ahead and make a killer main dish that is mostly hands off. In this scenario a braise is a total no-brainer. People love meat- buy an inexpensive cut that responds well to cooking slow and low, set it up two nights or one night before and then day-of, just let it simmer while you pour everyone wine. We were so prepped for this party that two hours before anyone got there we laid down on the couch and chilled for like a half hour! This particular dish is one of my favorites whether I’m hosting three or 30. Though I am partial to the larger crowd, because obviously, we’re people people. We like havin’ em around.

TWO DAY “SHORT RIBS” FOR A CROWD 

3-4 lbs. good quality chuck cut into 1-2” pieces
Olive oil
2-3 carrots, peeled and diced
1 Spanish onion, peeled and diced
1 shallot, peeled and minced
2-3 stalks celery, diced
½ tube (about 3-4 tbs.) tomato paste
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 head garlic, cut in half
1 32 oz. container chicken or beef stock
1 bottle dry red wine*
Salt and pepper
Flour (optional)**

*I used a bottle of California Zinfandel, because that’s what I had, but in recipes like these I almost always use a Chilean Cabernet (Viu Manet or Cono Sur are both decent, inexpensive brands) or an inexpensive dry French red (La Vielle Ferme Rouge).

**If you want to use flour in this recipe, you use it in the beginning, dredging the meat in a light coating before browning. Because my guest of honor does not do gluten, I kicked around the idea of using tapioca flour, which I have heard works well as a substitute. No other random flour will fit—coconut flour for example sucks up a lot of liquid and could screw things up royally. What I ended up doing was omitting flour and browning the meat straight up—I don’t think we missed out on anything and since it’s the least complicated option, this is what I will do in the future as well.

Heat a few tablespoons oil in a Dutch oven over medium high heat. Generously salt and pepper your “short ribs” on all sides and add to pot. Brown in batches, getting a nice sear on at least two sides and pull meat out and set aside. Remove pan from heat and let cool for a few minutes before proceeding, or you will scorch your vegetables. Return pot to heat and lower flame to medium. Add a few drizzles of oil to pan and sauté carrot, onion, shallot and celery. Season with a big pinch of salt and pepper and cook, stirring often, until fragrant and slightly translucent. Add tomato paste and stir to coat, then increase heat to high and add wine, scraping the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to loosen up any flavorful bits left from searing the meat.

Return the meat and any accumulated juices to the pan and pour in stock to cover, nestle in halved garlic, thyme and rosemary. Bring to a boil then reduce to low and let simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Remove from heat, cover and set in fridge overnight. (If you want to do this all in one day simply eliminate the refrigeration step and continue to braise on low until meat is falling apart, about an additional 1 ½ hours.)

Remove pot from fridge and let the temperature come up a bit. Scoop any hardened fat off the surface and toss. One optional step I added here was to pull the meat out and remove any huge hunks of garlic and the stems from the thyme and rosemary; then I poured the liquid, along with the softened veggies into my vitamix in batches and pureed until silky. This is completely optional and not necessary but did result in a really luxurious sauce. If you have a high power blender and you don’t mind a few super messy extra steps try it. If not, don’t sweat it; simply pull out the herb stems and halves of garlic before continuing to reheat.

Set the pot back on the stove, bring up to a boil, and then reduce to low. Let simmer about 2 hours (perhaps less), stirring often. A great test of whether or not your meat is done is to pull a piece up and hold it by its corner- if it starts to fall apart with just the help of gravity- it’s ready. Or you can try shredding apart a piece with a fork. It should be completely fork tender. Serve with a super simple green salad, mashed potatoes or polenta and plenty of crusty bread for dat sauce.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

long days and all

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I have been grasped by an overwhelming sense of nostalgia the past few weeks. Admittedly this happens every August as fall creeps closer but in this case the loss of an old friend last week has me feeling particularly gripped with a want to slow time down/ move it backward. As I sifted through milk crates of old photos and reconnected with people I hadn’t seen in years I couldn’t help but be seized by how fast it all goes by and how precious life is. This particular friend and I had not seen each other in years, or even been close in over a decade but the suddenness of his passing, the fact that he left a beautiful family behind and the fact that we were so close at such a formative time in our lives had me really steeped in the grief of it. We were all just babies, really, riding around with newly minted drivers licenses, truly questionable fashion choices (so much hemp, so many cargo shorts), and good, good company. We laughed constantly and life felt like an adventure, even though it was some pretty basic suburban teenage mischief. Everything was new then.

I am also struck by the speedy passage of this year and the deep-feeling-potency of motherhood. I don’t know how to put it any other way. I thought I was a sensitive soul before becoming a mom but having a child, like falling in love, getting married, or any other activity that is both worthwhile and terrifying at the same time truly does bring out All the Feels. Russel is now six months old. How on earth this happened so quickly I don’t know. I often times am still struck by the thought “holy shit I have a baby!” when I peek at him in the rearview mirror or tiptoe into his room to watch him sleep. You can call it cliché all you want but the parenting adage that the “days are long but the years are short” is the TRUTH. He has been alive for half a year and it feels like ten seconds. My boy has round thighs reminiscent of legs of prosciutto, three (three!) tiny white teeth and what the pediatrician calls a “zest for life.” I think we will keep him, long days and all.

And while the days are long for just a few weeks more I’d like to hang onto this summer for a while more. Food is an easy way to do that. Fresh, bright and super simple: this chicken “salad” for lack of a better term has without a doubt been the signature food of the Benson Family Summer of 2015. My friend Tim made something similar a month or so back and told me about it. I went home and made it the very next day, tweaking it just slightly and adding corn (because it’s August, der). I then went on to make it four times over the next three weeks. It’s addicting, healthy and delicious. I have bulked it up with crunchy romaine and baby spinach leaves to be a proper salad, spooned it into warm pita pockets and shoveled it into my mouth with the serving spoon straight out of the bowl. It’s that kind of good.

TOMATO, CORN and HERB SUMMER CHICKEN SALAD

Marinated grilled chicken breasts (see recipe below)
1 ear corn, charred over a grill or open flame
1 cup halved cherry tomatoes (I used red and yellow)
3 scallions, chopped
2-3 tbsp. fresh parsley, coarsely chopped
2-3 tbsp. fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped
¾ cup cashews, toasted and coarsely chopped
3-4 tbsp. olive oil
Juice from one lime
2-3 tsp. rice vinegar
Drizzle honey
1-2 tbsp. whole grain mustard

Char corn over an open flame or grill until slightly blackened in spots. Let cool and chop kernels from the cob. Halve or quarter cherry tomatoes and combine with corn in a large bowl. Add cubed grilled chicken scallions, parsley, cilantro and cashews. Drizzle in oil, lime juice, rice vinegar, honey and mustard. Season with salt and pepper. Toss together and taste, adjusting seasonings if necessary. Serve with lettuce cups, over chopped romaine with an extra drizzle of oil for a complete salad; or shovel into your mouth straight out of the serving bowl (my preferred method).

SIMPLE MARINATED GRILLED CHICKEN

3-4 chicken breasts
¼ cup olive oil
Juice of ½ a lemon
2 tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
2 tbsp. whole grain mustard

Liberally salt and pepper chicken breasts and combine with remaining ingredients in a Ziploc bag. Let marinate in the fridge for at least 20 minutes or up to 4 hours. Grill until cooked through or a meat thermometer reads 165 degrees. You could also use boneless, skinless thighs, although if I were doing that I would halve the amount of olive oil, they have much more fat.

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Monday, July 27, 2015

worth the reward

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 I have begun wearing yoga pants for ABY (anything but yoga) and I have an assortment of nursing tank tops from Target that have been a second skin for the past five months. Suffice to say I’m not in a place where I’m taking a lot of fashion “risks” (unless you count looking like a Total Mom a risk). However, in a time not so long ago I might go out on a limb with a “look” if you will. In fact I’ll have you know when I was 7 months pregnant I bought a pair of maroon suede dunks because I was absolutely certain that I was going to be the kind of mom who could pull off high tops. I realized when the pregnancy hormones/ online shopping high wore off that no, no I was not and rather than making me look like a cool sporty lady said dunks made my swollen calves look like leggings-clad tree trunks and it was essentially the female equivalent of a dad with an earring. But you know, you live and you learn.

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High tops aside, in most cases I hold a basic philosophy, or I guess you could call it a mantra, when it comes to a new item of clothing that I’m not quite sure I can pull off. I recited it my friend Val one afternoon in college when she was hesitating on wearing either a fedora or some parachute pants or a one shoulder tank top (or some other early 00’s fashion abomination that seemed amazingly haute couture at the time). “You just rock it” I told her. “Whenever I’m about to wear something that I’m not sure I can pull off, I just leave the house before I can reconsider.” The guarantee is this: before you can let enough self doubt creep in that you scuttle home and change at least three people will compliment you on the new look and you’ll find the risk is worth the reward. You just rock it. Wear the pants/hat/tank like you own it and the world will take notice.

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I find this basic philosophical framework bodes well towards cooking outside of your comfort zone as well. I guess these days since I’m spending less time crafting together smartly curated outfits I’m extending the “act first, think later” framework to our weeknight dinners. On a whim a few weeks ago I bought a big giant pack of soba noodles in an attempt to recreate something I had eaten from a Thai food truck. I was a little intimidated as I almost always am when it comes to a new ingredient that feels outside of my wheelhouse. But the end result was a new, healthy weeknight staple dish that is super fast and totally yummy. The risk of the new is almost always worth the reward of expansion, whether it’s jazzing up your wardrobe or spicing up your same stable of weeknight meals. And if we’re being serious here the worst thing that could happen in this scenario would be that dinner is a disaster and you have to order pizza. And if pizza is your worst case scenario well then, your life is alright.

GARLIC GINGER SOBA NOODLES 
with SPINACH and MUSHROOMS 

2 bundles Japanese Soba noodles (about ¼ a large package)
1-2 tbsp. oil (olive, grapeseed or canola)
1-2 tsp. butter
1 shallot, finely minced
3-4 scallions (white and light green parts only, dark green reserved)
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2-3 tsp. ginger, grated
Equal parts shitake and white button mushrooms, thinly sliced (about 2- 2 ½ cups total)
1 bag baby spinach
2 tbsp. rice vinegar
2-3 tbsp. soy sauce
1-2 tsp. Sriracha
4-5 dashes fish sauce
Generous drizzle of honey
½ to ¾ cup shelled edamame
½ cup cashews, toasted
Toasted Sesame Oil (optional)

Optional accompaniments:
Crispy Baked Tofu
Fried or hard boiled eggs

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Set a large pot of water to boil. In a large skillet, heat butter and oil over medium heat. Add shallot and sauté for about 2-3 minutes until translucent and fragrant. Add mushrooms and sauté, stirring less frequently so they brown up a bit in spots, for about 5-8 minutes. If the pan gets very dry, feel free to add a touch more oil or another pat of butter. Add scallions, ginger and garlic and stir until fragrant (about 2 minutes), then add half of: soy sauce, rice vinegar, fish sauce, Sriracha and a small drizzle of honey. Add edamame and spinach in handfuls until it wilts down.

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Taste and test sauce for flavor, adjust with reserved soy, vinegar, honey and Sriracha. If you want it a bit saltier add more soy, more tangy- add more vinegar, spicier- Sriracha or a bit more sweetness drizzle in a little more honey. Stir everything together and reduce heat to low. Drop soba noodles into salted water and stir around. Let cook according to package directions (usually only about 5 minutes); drain and add directly into the skillet of vegetables. Stir everything together and taste again. Adjust sauce if necessary, adding more of anything you think it may need; if you want it a bit more saucy, you can spoon in a little of the noodle water. Transfer noodles and veggies to bowls and serve with Crispy Baked Tofu or a fried or boiled egg on top, or both (you could also add sautéed shrimp, chicken or flank steak if you were feeling like you needed some animal protein). Garnish with chopped cashews, the reserved green scallions and a drizzle of sesame oil.

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Monday, June 15, 2015

all in the approach

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When I was about 26 I began to teach myself how to cook. Out of both curiosity and necessity. As I have shared here before I was once very overweight, and learning to cook for myself was a huge step in the process of losing the extra pounds. I had dabbled a bit before in the kitchen and I could certainly make basics like pasta or marinated steak tips; but with the need for healthy food came a curiosity in cooking that had apparently laid dormant for years. One of the first “fancy” foods I experimented with were Asian Lettuce Wraps, just like these. I made them for a New Years Eve party with my roommates that was more “5 people getting drunk and having a violent dance party” than “actual party” but you know in those days, if the party was small you just committed yourself to drinking until it got weird or someone split their pants break dancing on the kitchen floor.

I feel very fortunate that much of my knowledge in the kitchen seems to be innate. And more fortunate still that I don’t just take an interest in preparing food, but a great joy in it. Because we all gotta eat, right? I learned both this approach and my basic skills from many women in my life, but one in particular: my mother. Even though frozen, convenience and microwave foods were totally en vogue in the 80s (actually so was En Vogue now that I mention it- ba dump bah!), my mom was making her own pizza dough and dinner rolls; experimenting with homemade “Chinese Food” (basically just add soy sauce and water chestnuts to anything) and showing up in the kitchen, night after night, making simple, satisfying homemade food for all of us with the kind of enthusiasm that cannot be taught, only inherited.

Now I find myself years later, once again with weight to lose (thanks pregnancy). So I’m stepping back on the scale and stepping into unfamiliar territory- this time new motherhood. I am again pleasantly surprised and infinitely grateful that at least a bit of this work feels innately known, second nature and yes, filled with joy. Becoming a mother makes me feel far more connected to all the women in my life- moms and grandmothers, aunts, cousins and friends. And feeling lucky that even though until very recently their particular skill set when it comes to childrearing did not necessarily pique my interest, that just by knowing them, I was learning whether I knew it or not. By proximity alone. So I guess I should say thanks to all the moms in my life that have done this first and of course, thank you, Pizzer. For showing me how to shush a fussy baby, sauté a mean stir fry and most of all to approach the part of my life that is decidedly domestic with not just energy but passion. Because the approach really makes all the difference.

ASIAN LETTUCE WRAPS

1 head Boston lettuce, leaves removed from stem and washed
2-3 tbsp. olive oil
¾ - 1 lb. ground pork
1 small onion, minced
1 red pepper, seeded and minced
8-10 white button mushrooms, cleaned and diced
3 scallions, chopped
2-3 tbsp. grated ginger
3 cloves garlic

4 tbsp. soy sauce
2-3 tsp. rice vinegar
Juice from ½ orange or tangerine; or from one whole Clementine (approx. 3-4 tbsp. orange juice)
A few dashes of Fish Sauce
Sriracha, to taste
1-2 tsp. honey
Toasted sesame oil (about 1 tsp.) (optional)
Toasted, chopped cashews or peanuts (about ½ - ¾ cup) (optional)

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium to medium-high heat. Add pork and sauté until no pink bits remain, push to one side and reduce heat to medium. Add onion, red pepper and mushrooms to the pan and sauté until fragrant and softened and mushrooms are a bit browned, about 5 minutes. Add an extra drizzle of oil if the pan seems dry, then add in garlic, scallions and ginger to the pan and sweat for a few minutes, stirring constantly. Fold pork in with the rest of the ingredients and stir together well. Drizzle in soy sauce, rice vinegar, orange juice, fish sauce, Sriracha and honey and stir together well. Let simmer for about 3-5 minutes, stirring often.

Taste and adjust seasonings as you wish. If you want a bit more salt: add another dash or two of soy; sweetness- drizzle in a touch more honey and juice; tang- vinegar; heat- Sriracha, you get the point. I usually add a bit more of everything, being most careful with the salt (because it’s hard to go back once you go overboard) and the honey (because you don’t want a sauce that’s going to stick to the pan). Finish with a drizzle of toasted sesame oil (about 1 tsp.) and crushed cashews or peanuts, if you like.

Serve hot or warm with cold lettuce leaves alongside. I like to make this into a full meal by making some white or brown rice to serve with. Even though you need to do a lot of chopping and prep- the dish itself comes together quite quickly and makes for a really impressive appetizer. If I am entertaining I like to make this ahead and then gently reheat it- it warms up very nicely. Make sure the lettuce leaves stay really cold in the fridge because the contrast of cold leaves and warm filling is what really makes this dish a stunner.

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Thursday, May 14, 2015

different now

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 Life around here has assumed a slow, sweet pace for the past three months. I spent most days of my maternity leave trying to trick the baby into napping (in the swing with some ambient electronic music on works best), dashing my way through quick showers and prepping dinner with one hand while I bounce the baby in my left. Most days we found time to take a ride, run a few errands and hopefully, take a long walk to soak up the well-deserved sunshine that’s finally found its way to Massachusetts. It’s a whole new way of life that means quicker cooking and slower living and that’s just fine by me.

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Before you have a baby many, many people who already have kids like to try and prepare you for “once the baby comes…” or, alternately, the End of Your Life as You Know It. I think they are mostly well meaning and mostly correct. I mean, life is different now. Yesterday I pumped breastmilk in the back of a parking lot in my mom’s Camry. My idea of a luxurious evening is a 10 p.m. bedtime and enough time to paint my nails. I regularly pluck boogers and spit up off Russel’s face bare handed and am not the least bit grossed out by it. I am obsessed with his face and his clammy hands and tiny sweaty feet in the best possible way. On my first day back at work one of my besties checked in and asked if I was happy to be out of the house. I answered her honestly “I don’t really want to be yet. I wish I was still at home huffing his breath.” In so many ways your life is never the same, but what should be included in their warnings is this: you won’t care. Not in the least. I feel no wanderlust for my childless life. No feelings of missing out on nights at the bar. I spent enough of those to last a lifetime between 19 and 33 anyways. I know I’m not missing anything.

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Countless other folks warned me that “once the baby comes you’ll never cook again”. Which I believe might be the case for someone slightly less food obsessed than me. But you know Porky Dickens is gonna find a way to feed the beast. I’m happy to report that the rhythm of our days has allowed for –at the very least- the cooking of a proper dinner every night. We’re home after all and on a budget and it’s nice at the end of the day to do anything other than taking care of the baby after a full day of doing just that. When my husband gets home I hand him off like a hot potato and get to prepping. Sometimes if he has actually napped, I’ve even prepped a bit in advance. In the time it takes me to make dinner, Paul can usually change, play and soothe the baby to sleep, so the timing is pretty terrific. Even if he’s not asleep he’s usually full and mellow and will watch us eat dinner from his little bucket chair while mashing his meaty little hands in his mouth. By design, our meals these days have to be simple and preferably hands off like an easy baked chicken or steaming some veggies and tossing something on the grill. The other day, I made some poached chicken breasts to have on hand in the fridge in order to break my habit of going out for a high calorie lunch. I think poaching is one of those techniques that is both basic and elegant if done right. Mostly hands off and with an end result that’s like an edible blank canvas: simple, flavorful chicken breasts cooked through and ready for slicing on top of salads, into sandwiches, or chopped up into my favorite curried chicken salad.

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SIMPLE POACHED CHICKEN BREASTS

3-4 chicken breasts
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 shallot, halved and peeled
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 tbs. whole black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
Water

Place all ingredients in a large shallow pan (I use a braising pan) and cover by at least an inch with water. Eventually part of the tops of the chicken breasts might peek out above the water line and that’s okay. Heat burner to medium/ high heat until the water is simmering but NOT boiling (there are little bubbles, like carbonation bubbles, but not big ones that break the surface, but there is a lot of steam and the water is visibly hot). Adjust the temperature as needed, everyone’s stove tops may run differently. Poach until chicken registers 165 degrees (about 10-12 minutes, maybe more depending on the thickness of your breasts (uh huh ha).

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CURRY CHICKEN SALAD

2-3 poached chicken breasts, chopped;
or, 2 cups shredded chicken
2-3 scallions, cleaned and chopped
½ cup toasted walnuts coarsely chopped
½ cup golden raisins (optional)
½ cup mayonnaise
1 ½ - 2 tbs. curry powder (I like Madras and it’s easily found in most grocery stores)
Salt and pepper, to taste

In a medium-sized bowl, combine all ingredients and mix together well. Taste and adjust salt, pepper and a few more sprinkles curry powder. I like a lot of spices in this, but you can make it much more mild. The bright yellow curry color actually increases with time in the fridge, so if it’s a bit pale at first, don’t judge based on that. Be careful with the salt, I tend to make this super salty because I always forget that the mayo has salt in it as well. Add salt last and adjust to your palate. Serve on warm whole grain toast with baby spinach, or on a bed of mixed greens, for a more virtuous presentation.

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